Filmmaker Interview

POV: Tell us about the film. Can you describe it for those who have not seen it yet?

Katie Dellamaggiore: Brooklyn Castle is the story of I.S. 318 which is a middle school in Brooklyn, New York, and specifically it's a story about their chess team. They have the best junior high chess team in the nation. We follow five kids on that team for one year, seeing how chess and life intersect each other in kind of interesting ways. While we were shooting the school got hit with really bad budget cuts that threatened to dismantle this program and so that became a theme in the film as well, you know, what do we value in public education, what do programs, extracurricular programs like chess, what do they provide for students. We see that play out over the course of the school year.

POV: The school is in Brooklyn, but give us a little bit of a sense of what kind of neighborhood, what kind of environment the school is in?

Katie Dellamaggiore: Yes, the school is at this triangle where three neighborhoods meet, so it's Williamsburg, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Bushwick. It's a really diverse area, but the school in particular is a Title 1 school, which means that over 65% or 70% of the kids are from homes below the poverty level. A lot of the kids are from families, hard working, lower middle class families who work two or three jobs to provide for their families. So for the kids on the chess team, the program is really an opportunity to experience things that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience, travel and things of that nature.

POV: Tell us about the primary characters you follow. You have five students but you also have some teachers and administrators in school too.

Katie Dellamaggiore: We follow five kids and when we decided which kids we were going to follow, I was really particular about wanting to pick five kids that I thought had very kind of specific or different challenges or that represented a different challenge.

So there's a gentleman, Pobo, and he runs for class president in the film. He's like this budding politician. He calls himself Pobama. He loves to debate politics and really get into it and he's like the team leader, so he's the charismatic, buoyant like team leader.

Then there's Alexis, and he's more quiet than Pobo, very introspective, and he's the son of two Paraguayan immigrants and for him chess is a means to you know higher education and providing for his family one day. He kind of wants to live the American dream and sees chess as a way to do that.

Then there's Rochelle who is the best player on the team and she's a girl and so she's graduating 8th grade when we meet her and so Rochelle's challenge is how is she going to integrate chess into her life as a high school student. You know she's not a nerd, she's not a geek, this is what she says, and she has a social life, she has aspirations to go to an Ivy League school, and chess is kind of a full time commitment so she's figuring out how to do that all.

Patrick is the lowest or second lowest rated kid on the team. He is not going to be a professional chess player one day. He's just trying to break kind of the lowest level of chess. But for Patrick, chess is actually a way to become a better student. He has ADHD and so he found out that chess actually gave him some better concentration skills and allowed him to be better focused at test taking and things like that. For him chess is a way to become a better student.

And then finally there's Justus who we didn't meet at first, when we first arrived at the school, but then we found out that he was going to be entering 318 as a 6th grader and he was kind of this chess star that was arriving at 318, you know he was one of the highest rated 10 year-olds in the country, and so he was arriving at 318 with a whole lot of expectations, like personal expectations to kind of keep up his reputation and kind of keep up the level of chess that he was playing. So his challenge is figuring out how to deal with disappointment and how to play chess but enjoy chess and not feel like he has to win to feel like he's successful.

POV: Tell us about the teachers and the administrators that you also feature.

Katie Dellamaggiore: So, in the background but kind of keeping this team together are John Galvin and Elizabeth Vicary. Elizabeth Vicary is the fulltime chess teacher at 318 so she teaches chess five days a week, eight periods a day and she's a brilliant chess player, a brilliant teacher and a brilliant chess player and she is the one who basically can take a kid and get them from not knowing how the pieces move to being rated 1600 in three years and 1600 is the level of a competitive chess player. So she's got this very special gift of teaching kids how to play chess in a way that they're really excited about.

And John Galvin is the administrator. He's the assistant principal and he likes to say, if Elizabeth is the brains behind the operation, he's like the general manager who is basically orchestrating and organizing the travel and the funding and kind of giving kids an experience of chess that's not just about how to move the pieces and the strategy but giving them an experience that's life lessons and what will they remember 20 years from now about being on the chess team beyond just being a good chess player.

POV: The five kids that we follow, give us a sense of how chess fits in with their kind of, their overall academic lives. How often are they playing, what kind of intensity do they need to put in to make a commitment to a team like this?.

Katie Dellamaggiore: The majority of the kids on the team are taking chess as a class during the day. So the interesting thing about 318 is that most of the programs that are offered after school are also offered as an elective during the day and so there's this nice kind of like seamlessness where if you're really into chess, you can take chess as a class and then you can take it after school. You can even come in early in the morning and play chess and that's the same for dance or theater or robotics. The kids who play chess have a really strong commitment to it because they're actually taking chess as like a graded class during the day and in their free time they're going to John Galvin's office and playing chess in his office during their lunch, during their lunch break.

The kids who play chess, they love it and so they want to play chess all day long and so if given the opportunity they probably would, and so there's you know maybe three hours of chess play from the moment they wake up until when they leave their after school program. And then they're playing chess on the weekends so they're traveling as a team to local tournaments around New York City, on a Saturday or a Sunday and then they're traveling to tournaments together. Then beyond that, they're studying when they get home.

The thing with chess that I don't think a lot of non-chess players know, I didn't before I started making this film, is that there's not just like this, you don't just have this gift that you're just kind of born with. Like, "Oh, I have this chess gift." You study it, like a subject. Like any subject that you get good at and so you go home and you read chess books and you play online and you study it like any other subject and so the kids go home and they study for one to two hours a night probably and have chess homework they work on.

POV: Do you have a sense of how this kind of intensive study of something like chess affects their other academic life?

Katie Dellamaggiore: Elizabeth Vicary has said that from her point of view, the way chess directly affects a student's academic success is it actually makes them a better learner. It actually makes them better at teaching themselves something. So you know if you can go home and teach yourself a complicated chess strategy on your own, then you're probably going to get better at going home and teaching yourself a math equation or going home and writing an essay for English class and figuring it out on your own because a lot of studying chess is figuring out problems on your own. So you become a better problem-solver and you become better at teaching yourself something.

There's that part of it and I think the other part of chess that makes you a better student is that you become more self-reflective. So after you play a game of chess and you've won or you lost, you sit down with your instructor - Elizabeth in this case - and you go over each of your moves and so every move that you make you have to kind of come up with a reason why you made it. And then you also have to kind of think about what your ten other choices were and why you didn't make those choices. So that's like kind of what she asks of you when you sit down with her after a game. It's like well, you moved here, why didn't you move here, here, or here?

And so I think that actually, especially at like 11, 12 or 13 years old, I think makes kids like really think about their choices in a way that maybe another subject doesn't ask of you. You know like in other subjects in school you either have the right or the wrong answer, but in chess there's more of this gray area where, "Well, it wasn't right or it wasn't wrong, but what was like the best choice or the better choice." And I think that that's like a really interesting place to take a young person.

POV: Has there been any research done into the effects of this type of program?

Katie Dellamaggiore: As far as I know, and I get this question a lot, there haven't been really any like long term studies about the effects of chess. I think people are always interested in doing more long term studies about the effects of chess.

Everybody always wants the data and that's kind of like the environment that schools are in these days. It's like show us the tests, show us the data, how is this actually like improving a student and it's like a lot of things you can't prove with a test and you can't prove with data.

And that's why I feel like when I made this film I thought like the stories would be the proof. You know that if you can actually see the confidence, it's really hard to test confidence, you know? Or it's really hard to prove with data you know how resilient a kid is or like how much grit they have which is like a really kind of a popular theme lately so I don't know you know I think that there are, there are long term studies that people are interested in doing on the effects of chess, but I don't know that the data is in yet. So hopefully a film like this actually puts more of a personal face on something that's sometimes hard to get the numbers on.

POV: I want to talk a little bit about Rochelle. You have this one brilliant young girl, who is incredibly dedicated and also as she gets into high school trying to balance all these competing demands. the balance between boys and girls you know you have one girl, four boys, is that reflective of the gender split in participation programs like this?

Katie Dellamaggiore: Yeah, I think in chess, it's been a man's game for a long time. But that's changing. I've seen just in the course of making this film, more and more girls playing chess at tournaments. I mean they certainly obviously can play at the level that boys can, it has nothing to do with skill of course. I just think that you know when you reach a certain age, especially when you're a pre-teen or a teenager, you know you want to be around your friends or you want to feel like you're part of a community. And this is just my opinion so I just feel like for a girl when they don't see more girls playing, it's hard sometimes to be the one, the first one, say the first one in your class or the first one at your school to be like, "You know what? I'm going to play chess." But at 318 there's actually a fair amount of girls that play chess. Maybe even a little less than half now so I think Rochelle and some of the girls that were playing around her time have inspired more girls to play chess. It just so happened that when we were shooting Rochelle was one of the few stronger girls on the team but since we made the film, the girls at 318 actually went on to win Girl's Nationals and so there's like a, more girls playing chess at 318.

I don't know I hope the film shows girls that you know chess is something that they can play. They don't have to feel like an outsider, it doesn't have to feel like oh, I'm going to be the only girl playing at my school, because certainly obviously for Rochelle, her favorite thing was beating all the boys and I know she really enjoyed that.

POV: Talk a little bit about as she graduates from I.S. 318 and goes to high school there's a lot of competing demands on her from her mom and from the school. How does she balance all that?

Katie Dellamaggiore: For someone like Rochelle, to get better at chess and to reach Master level requires a lot of commitment. You actually have to put in a lot of studying time and you have to play at a lot of tournaments to break a certain level, to actually reach Master level. And it's easier to do that I think when you're at a school or in an environment like 318 where you're being supported by a whole team of people and by coaches who are actually kind of on this journey with you, but when Rochelle left 318 and went to high school, her high school didn't have like that same kind of chess community and so then it's really hard to kind of like break out on your own and kind of go down this path and not have everyone around you anymore.

I think that was really hard for her. In high school to think okay, I want to reach Master, but now I have to do it on my own. She had the support of her mom of course but nobody was going to make her do it and so I think that that's like an interesting you know lesson sometimes for people and for young people it's like you kind of have to really assess how important a goal is to you because if you're going to keep going down that path to reach that goal, you have to decide what your priorities are.

And so Rochelle had a hard time with that. Because her other goal was to get into an Ivy League school and so that's really hard too. She's going to Stanford, in the fall, so she reached her goal of getting into a really highly selective college and she's close to reaching Master now. And she's going to do it. I know she's going to do it. It might not happen as quickly as maybe she thought when she was 13 years-old but I know she's going to get there.

POV: I think one of the most inspiritng things in this film is how much chess seems to get these kids kind of a sense of identity and a strength of character. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. Is that the chess, is that being part of a team?

Katie Dellamaggiore: It's not just chess that can give you kind of this identity and strength of character. I actually think that when I think back to when I was like 12 or 13 years old, you kind of identify with an activity. That was kind of like the first maybe chance you had to feel good at something or to feel like you were part of a group and I think that that is especially really important like in those middle school years when you're trying to figure out who you are, what you're good at and what you like doing and how you want to spend your time and I think that chess kind of just filled that space for the kids in the film.

But it's not chess, I mean it could be really any kind of quality program that brings out the best in somebody because when you don't have something like that I think I mean you can get a little lost, you know. It's like, and especially if you know your parents, you know for the kids in at 318 a lot of their parents you know don't have extra money to send to private dance classes or private music classes, you know things like that. And so to have your school give you that opportunity to explore is really important and I think for a lot of the kids on the chess team I don't think if they didn't have chess if they would be bad kids or that they'd be out on the street or anything like that. But, I don't know that they would be as confident as they are or that they would enjoy school as much as they do, you know that you'd be excited to go to school because you know you're going to get to play chess.

It's sad to think that sometimes like that these are the programs that people are so quick to do away with. Because I feel like these are the programs that actually make you like a fully functioning happy, human being.

POV: One of the things which I've found really interesting about the film is there's kind of a broader narrative in the media about kind of a crisis in public education. Teachers get demonized, unions get demonized, kids are portrayed as not getting support from their parents, this really flips that on its head. I want to talk a little about how you see this story fitting into that kind of broader media narrative and if this is not actually more common than most people realize.

Katie Dellamaggiore: When I set out to make this film, I just saw a great story. I saw a great story about a group of hardworking kids you know great teachers kind of in this unexpected place doing this kind of unexpected thing and I didn't really set out to make a film about public education. I had no background as a filmmaker with making films about education, kind of wasn't what I had in mind when I set out to make the film but when I got there and I saw what was happening and I saw what this program was doing for the kids, I got really invested in that narrative of like - when you give a school and you give kids the resources they need you know they'll meet your expectations.

So when the school got hit with really bad budget cuts and this program that was actually doing really, really great things, was being threatened or was going to be taken away, I had the same kind of visceral reaction that the teachers were having. Like this isn't fair. How is it that like you know everyone is always looking for how to fix the problem of education and then in this school they've finally found something that works for them and that thing is being taken away. And so that seemed unfair to me.

And so that was the part that really struck me. I wanted to make that clear in the film that you know you can't expect schools to succeed and then also take away at the same time. The other piece of it was that obviously you know everyone likes to tell the stories you know, the stories of how public education are failing, we all know those stories. We've heard them a million times. But rarely do you see a story of a public school that's doing great things. Just a neighborhood public school, it's not a charter school, you don't have to be selected to get in, it just serves the kids of the neighborhood.

And here's a public school that any parent should want to send their kid to. And I thought well, wouldn't that be nice to put that story out there, you know? That we've all heard the stories of failure but let's like, let's hear about a story of success. Where teachers are really dedicated, you know they're not demonized in the film. You know the teachers aren't lazy. I felt like there are so many hardworking, wonderful teachers in this country and let's celebrate that.

So I thought I didn't know that that's what I was going to walk in on but when I saw that happening that was the natural story to tell, you know? There was no controversy. It was just a good school and I think if other schools can look to 318 as an example, that would be wonderful.

POV: And have you had a chance to engage with any policymakers, department of education? What's the reaction?

Katie Dellamaggiore: So we've had a tremendous amount of success using the film to affect policy in New York City. So every year around April or May, Mayor Bloomberg releases his executive budget for the city. And for the past two years there has been limited funding for after school programs. So every year there's like this battle. Through the film we were able to host a number of screenings and invite city council members to come see the film. New York state assembly people, come see the film. And a lot of them knew about the program already at 318, but I think the film just kind of took it to another level, where they really became allies of the school and, and, and took their support to another level.

And I really do think that the film helped them in their efforts to keep after school programs funded in New York City. And so this year once again, programs are being threatened and through the help of some really wonderful city council members in New York City, they were able to keep, keep those programs funded. And I think being able to point to the success of the I.S. 318 chess program, you know definitely had a huge part in that, I hope.

POV: Do you think it helps kind of transcend some of the traditional political fault lines that we see in the budget debate sense?

Katie Dellamaggiore: Yeah, because I think it's really easy to get caught up in the numbers. It's a numbers game. And you know and you're just looking at a piece of paper and just kind of a lot of times people are just looking for stuff to cross off. You just kind of have to reach this magic number, and it's not really a human process. It's just a line item. So I think a film like 318, if you can get a whole lot of people in a room who maybe have differing opinions of how to spend money, how to spend city funds, how to spend state funds, how to spend federal funds, if you can have them watch a story about real kids and see how those budget decisions are actually affecting real kids, it makes it a lot harder to cut something.

It's really hard to hit on a successful program like I.S. 318. There's so many different opinions out there about how public education should be fixed or how public education could be better. Charter schools, public schools, what-have-you. But everybody can kind of gather around an inspiring story. And when you see the kids at 318 succeeding, I haven't had one person ever see the film and be like, that's a bad idea.

Everybody that sees the film thinks that's what happening at 318 is a great idea. How to figure out how to replicate it at another school is, you know, is a different question. But you know I think putting a human face on a problem is the first step. And I think the film has been able to do that. I'm hoping that with the national broadcast on POV and our continuing partnership with the After School Alliance that we'll start to affect policy on a more national level. We haven't really done that yet, but I know that the life of the film is for years and years to come. We're hoping that the secretary of education will see it. We're hoping to get the kids to the White House. When Congress gets around to reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, we're hoping the film will have a place there in, in keeping you know after school and enrichment program funding in place. So the film has, has a lot of work still to do and, and we're still doing that.

POV: And just one last question. What's the reaction of the kids to seeing themselves on film?

Katie Dellamaggiore: One of my most favorite things that I've gotten to experience in releasing this film has been to be able to take the kids along with us for the ride. Taking them to film festivals, taking them on talk shows. Having them be part of that. And every time the film screens, you know me being the filmmaker, I've seen it a million times, I always sneak out into the lobby and I don't watch it, but the kids watch it every single time. And they've seen it dozens of times. And they laugh at everything, still.

And the best part for me has been, how do I explain this? Like you know for so long they were like on one side of the camera, trusting me that this film would be finished and that it would be good and that they would love it. But until they actually saw themselves on screen, they were just trusting me that that would happen. So when they finally did see themselves on screen, the fact that they not only are happy with the way that they are perceived on, in the film, but that they actually just enjoy the movie, that they like watching it has meant a lot to me.

And that they finally saw what I saw in them because I think for a long time maybe they didn't know why I actually wanted to make a film about them, but that they saw themselves on screen and saw that little spark that I saw in them, and are like, "Oh yeah, like I am really special." That there was that moment when they saw themselves on screen and had the experience I had of watching them. And I think for some of the kids, that even inspired them to if they, like for someone like Rochelle, she kind of like strayed from chess a little bit and then she saw the movie. And then I saw like this spark in her again of like wanting to play chess. So I felt like really proud that the movie did that for her. Or someone like Pobo, like he saw himself being a little young activist in the film. And I feel like the experience of seeing himself in the film doing that has made him even more want to become an activist. I love that the kids see themselves as special people in a film and that, that's been really cool.